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Friday, January 30, 2009

Commission looks into Icelandic insurance scheme

A report in today's Guardian suggests that Iceland will be put on a fast track for EU membership in order to save the country from financial ruin. The article notes that an Icelandic membership application would be viewed favourably by the Commission, with Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn saying he hopes Iceland can join with Croatia, probably by 2011. This would accelerate a process that usually takes several years.

So, is the Commission really Iceland's knight in shining armour? Or, is there more to it?

This story from Euractiv would suggest there is.

The issue, once again, is ratifiaction of the Lisbon Treaty. The deal struck between EU leaders last December for Ireland to hold a second referendum on Lisbon, envisioned Irish 'assurances' being tacked on to Croatia's Accession Treaty in order to give them legal force. This would avoid the EU's other 26 members having to re-ratify an amended Lisbon Treaty.

However, Slovenia has put a spanner in the works by threatening to veto Croatian accession due to a long-running border dispute.

This will understandably be unnerving Irish PM Brian Cowen who may be faced with a situation where he has to ask the Irish people to vote again on Lisbon but with no prospect of their hard won assurances ever having legal effect.

Then along came Iceland and the economic crisis.

A source from DG Enlargement reportedly told Euractiv that Iceland's membership bid "could play the role of a spare wheel" in the EU's attempts to push through the Lisbon Treaty. Fast track Icelandic membership will therefore act as insurance if Croatian accession continues to prove difficult and EU leaders will be able to reassure Ireland that their 'assurances' will be given legal effect one way or another.

As is often the case, there is more to EU politics than meets the eye.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tillack clashes with his accusers

During our debate in Brussels on Tuesday, Stern journalist Hans-Martin Tillack made some very interesting comments worth flagging up here.

Mr Tillack was arrested a few years ago at the instigation of the EU authorities after investigating EU fraud, but was later cleared. At our meeting he described how the staff in the Commission's DG Communication were behind the rumours which first lead to his arrest. Joe Hennon, the DG Communication Commissioner’s spokesman who was also present at our debate, objected saying: “It wasn’t the Commission. It was the Belgian police”. This was followed by laughter from the audience. Mr Hennon asked: “how many journalists have had the police knocking on their doors?”

Mr Tillack also lamented the re-appointment of Franz-Hermann Bruener as head of OLAF - the EU anti-fraud office which was criticised by the EU ombudsman for its handling of the Tillack case – by EU Communications Commissioner Margot Wallström, amongst others.

Commenting on Open Europe’s book, Mr Tillack said: “the PR of the Commission is not only biased, it is also simply wrong. One example is how often the Commission tries to diminish its importance and compares its number of employees to the typical medium-sized city council in Europe, while this is beside the point. The Commission has no nurses, no police. Actually you have to compare the Commission to, for example, the German federal government… the Commission has more employees than the German federal government.”

He continued: “it is highly questionable and unacceptable that the Commission is paying media outlets for reports. A friend of mine is an independent TV journalist who wanted to make a report on fraud in Brussels, but a German TV station did not want to go on with it, as they said they didn’t want to loose the funding they’re receiving from the Commission.”

He went to say that: “in the European Parliament, only eurosceptic groups question the Commission, and not the big traditional groups, so the whole EU system is a lot more vulnerable to corruption and waste as a lot goes unreported.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Curious eh

The Mail's Mary Ellen Synon has the lowdown from last night's well-attended Open Europe meeting in Brussels on the EU communication policy and the 'campaign for hearts and minds'.

One of the most interesting bits was the EU Commission spokesperson denying that Margot Wallstrom's office had sent a politically-charged email to the Swedish media suggesting that OE are extremists, as we alluded to yesterday.

He claimed that they had merely responded to a request for information from one media outlay - (which, he added, was very different to sending out a mass press release - thereby suggesting that he would agree that that indeed would be underhand). Interesting, given that the email we saw from Ewa Hedlund, Wallstrom’s Communication manager, to Swedish journalists began:

"I would like to draw your attention to inaccuracies in a press release that you received today from the Swedish MEPs in the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament. The press release cites a report from Open Europe..."

Doesn't sound much like a mere reply to someone looking for a response, does it?

Well, we can't quite work out what has happened - presumably the Commission wouldn't just lie to a room packed full of people?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Commission slander

We're looking forward to a debate this evening in Brussels to look at the themes thrown up by our new book: "The hard sell: EU communication policy and the campaign for hearts and minds."

It should be quite good fun, especially because the EU Commission has raised the stakes by sending slanderous emails about Open Europe to the Swedish press.

In a very underhand move, the office of EU Communications Commissioner Margot Wallstrom has sent a highly political email to the Swedish media, dismissing Open Europe's book and trying to caricature us as being "to the right of the British Conservatives."

They also told the office of one Swedish MEP (of the left) that we are run by UKIP. All of this is nothing short of slander. Especially given the context - in Sweden British Conservatives are perceived to be to the right of Swedish conservatives - so the implication that we are 'extremists' who should not be heeded is clear.

It is also pretty ironic given that part of our book actually criticises the Commission for doing just this – sending out politically-charged press releases to specifically targeted sections of the press. You may remember they did something similar when they sent a press release to the Irish media blaming an over-reliance of the British press for the Irish 'no' vote.

This has got nothing to do with “trying to reach out to citizens” and “inform them about EU policies” - which is what the Commission claims its communications policy is about - and everything to do with trying to control its image and limit dissenting voices. This is just the latest example of how the Commission behaves like a campaign group - squandering public money as it goes.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Riots and euros

As EUObserver reports, EU member states are "intensively" monitoring the risk of spreading civil unrest in Europe, as riots over the economic crisis erupt in Iceland following street clashes in Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Greece.

It is important to note that, Iceland aside, all of these countries are members of the eurozone or have their currencies pegged to the euro.

The Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who has been closely following the often unspoken risks existing within the eurozone, made clear in December that Greece's euro membership has led to a warped economy.

He wrote "there is obviously a problem for countries like Greece that were let into EMU for political reasons before their economies had been reformed enough to cope with the rigours of euro life - over the long run," adding that he was "a little surpised that the riot phase of this long politico-economic drama known as EMU has kicked off so soon, and that it has done so first in Greece where the post-bubble hangover has barely begun."

An often overlooked fact is that the other three countries suffering from riots - Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania - all have their currencies pegged to the euro.

Warning of this in 2007, economist Stefan Karlsson explained what being pegged to the euro means for non-eurozone members:

"That means that they are forced to have the same interest rates as the ECB sets. And the ECB of course sets interest rates artificially low in a pathetic attempt to revive the lackluster French and Italian economies, which are inhibited by statist domestic policies, as well as to limit the appreciation against the extremely weak U.S. dollar."

The countries now hit by riots need to make painful reforms because of their political commitments, made when joining the EU, to adopt the euro. The commitment to track the euro, in preparation for eventual monetary union, prevents them from devaluing their nominal 'domestic' currencies in order to export out of trouble. Economist Edward Hughes builds a case for doing away with the peg to the euro, allowing these countries to devaluate in order to recover.

Letting countries into a monetary union they are not ready for and forcing countries to peg their currencies to the euro, depriving them of the 'devaluation weapon' - it all contributes to the riots we're witnessing.

Spain and Ireland are clearly not the only ones suffering from monetary union.

Being frank

Former Spanish PM Jose Maria Aznar has made some fascinating comments in an interview with Le Figaro today.

Echoing Irish EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, he said Ireland should not be made to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty, adding that the Treaty is not even necessary to function.

He said:

“I do not think it is a good idea to make a country re-vote if it has said ‘No’ until it says ‘Yes.’ Europe doesn’t have an institutional problem, it is more a problem of political leadership. During the French Presidency, we were able to see that the EU can function with its current institutions on the condition that it has an able leader and a direction in which to go.”

It makes you wonder - how many of the current EU leaders feel, deep down, that it is wrong to make Ireland vote again? But are unable to say so, until they leave office?

Aznar added that the current economic crisis is “clearly not a failure of liberalism, but rather a breakdown of current regulatory mechanisms and of state intervention in a sector that is already highly regulated, the banking sector.” He calls for “more flexibility and freedom in the economy, lower taxes and expenses, more budgetary stability and less state intervention,” while complaining that Europeans are doing the exact opposite, “which is why the USA will come out of the crisis before Europe.”

When asked about whether Europeans should increase their military presence in Afghanistan, he answered that they should, as “one cannot be in an alliance, demand the benefits of the security it provides, and not contribute to it. Yet I don’t think the Europeans will accept this invitation.” On the possibility of establishing a European defence force, Aznar said “organising European defence outside of NATO is a pipe-dream. Better is one system which guarantees security, than two parallel systems which are a source of insecurity.”

Why should MEPs be different?

Well done to Felicity Norman, Green Party MEP Candidate, for a good letter in the Birmingham Post today:

Dear Editor, The U-turn by the Conservatives and Gordon Brown to agree to the release of details of MPs' expenses shows what public pressure can achieve.

It seemed MPs were about to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, which would have been outrageous.

We have seen one or two MPs purchasing plasma TVs and luxurious goods for their second homes in London at the taxpayers' expense. While this is the minority, we must have transparency to protect the taxpayer.

Now, we need the same rule for MEPs whose expenses are also open to abuse despite a tightening of the rules in Brussels.

The Green Party is the only party to score 100 per cent for transparency of their MEPs' expenses according to Open Europe, an Independent think tank calling for radical reform of the EU.

Of the 7 MEPs in the West Midlands region, not a single MEP fully satisfied the think tank's survey.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Considerations to bear in mind

We had a feature on "Will the euro break up?" in both our outlook papers on "the EU in 2007" and "the EU in 2009". Recent reports include credit downgradings of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland, calls for Ireland to leave the eurozone ,and coverage of how Spain has suffered from eurozone membership.

A new paper by Simon Tilford at the CER, titled "The euro at ten: Is its future secure?", doesn't mention how the euro has caused housing bubbles in Spain and Ireland, but is worth reading as it points at the "considerable" risks existing for the common currency. Revisiting arguments made in a 2006 report entitled, "Will the eurozone crack?", it says that "despite the current strength of the euro, and obvious advantages of a safe haven that membership provides at a time of financial turmoil, the concerns raised then are even more valid today."

Some excerpts:

"the growing divergence in competitiveness between the various members of the eurozone, and the extreme caution of consumers in Germany (and the Netherlands), mean that the imbalances within the eurozone have worsened substantially over the last two years. (…) When I wrote our 2006 report on the euro, the spread between the yield on German government debt and that of Italy and Greece was about 30 basis points (0.3 of a percentage point). As of early January 2009 the spread between Greek and German debt had widened to 220 basis points and that between German and Italian debt to over 140 basis points.”

“Greece and Italy are probably most vulnerable to such a loss of confidence. Both are inflexible and bear the weight of very high levels of public debt. So they are likely to have a battle on their hands to attract funds.”

It summarises:

“In short, too much attention has been devoted to the safe haven effect of eurozone membership, and too little attention to the impact of prolonged weak economic growth on fiscal solvency.”

Even clearer it is made here:

“Sterling has certainly weakened dramatically since the start of 2008, but the spread between the yield on UK debt and German bunds was just 5 basis points at the beginning of January 2009, lower than the equivalent for any member-state of the eurozone. (...) But the widening bond yield spreads within the eurozone highlight that membership is no panacea: membership insulates countries from the risk of a currency crisis, but currency risk can be replaced by credit risk.”

Tilford thinks that on the basis of these trends, a number of scenarios are possible, ranging from countries defaulting and leaving the eurozone in order to devalue their currency, to "faster political integration within the eurozone and a move to some kind of fiscal federalism.” The latter scenario he deems unlikely as it “would require big political shifts, not least in the richer countries that would have to share their fiscal credibility and provide direct financial support.”

Of the former he says:

“A decision to quit the currency union might not be as big a catastrophe as is sometimes predicted for the country in default. But there is no doubt it would be hugely damaging for Europe. A decision by one member-state to leave would probably trigger a chain reaction, with investors forcing other countries out of the currency union. That would do untold damage to the credibility of the EU. The single market could be severely damaged if the remaining members of the eurozone erected protectionist barriers against imports from countries that had created national currencies and embarked on competitive devaluations. European integration would suffer a devastating blow.”

Hard to predict what the political consequences would be of, say, Italy leaving the eurozone. However: is the UK harming the internal market now with its competitive devaluations attracting thousands of extra shoppers to London? Maybe to some extent, but surely not enough to let continental Europe close it trade borders for Britain.

Tilford thinks that the most likely scenario is almost certainly the first – wrenching fiscal retrenchment in hard-hit member states and some modest moves by Germany and others with large external surpluses to rebalance their economies. He might be right, but if Italy’s budget suffers more than expected from the economic downturn, which would make even the harshest budget cuts insufficient, we’re in a whole different scenario. Then Italy might well opt for the devaluation scenario (which is hard to execute from within the eurozone).

The paper expresses many valid concerns on the currency which is spanning whole different sets of economies. Still, however, Tilford mentions the CER "believes that the UK’s political interests would be served by joining". The considerations in this paper haven't convinced us of that, to say the least. Funny how supporters of giving the EU more power through the Lisbon Treaty are acknowledging the huge risks with that other grand EU project - the common currency.

EU C-Span?

German daily Die Welt reports that the European Parliament has its own TV station, to be found here. More than 300 hours of broadcasting are planned for this year, translations are in 20 languages, and the costs to 2010 will be minimum 24 million euro.

Now all they need is... some viewers. Difficult to believe, we know, but hardly anyone is tuning in to the thrilling debates going on in the hemisphere. At the end of 2008 only 120,000 people had clicked on it.

Sarcasm aside - we think broadcasting what's going on in the Parliament is a good idea - that's what we do here in the UK, after all. It's just worth publicising all the hidden costs that inevitably accompany the growing EU institutions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Travelling clowns (II)

We have finally tracked down a full list of the names of MEPs who signed the Written Declaration backing one seat for the European Parliament, an initiative supported by Open Europe.

The total number is 286, well short of the required majority of 393.

One of the authors of the declaration, Belgian MEP Frédérique Ries has been quoted saying: "There were strong indications that MEPs were acting on very strict orders not to support the declaration which had been issued by the leaders of the political groups."

Another MEP in favour of a one seat Parliament, Alexander Alvaro, pledged: "we will continue to campaign against the twin-seat arrangement."

We wish them every success.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A mixed bag

From CCHQ:

Bad news: Ken Clarke is back

Good news: Mark Francois, Shadow Minister for Europe, has been promoted to the Shadow Cabinet. Hopefully this reflects a recognition that 'Europe' will *actually* be an issue over the next year.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Travelling clowns

According to reports, only 268 of the European Parliament's 785 MEPs have signed the declaration calling for an end to the 'travelling circus' which sees MEPs moving from Brussels to a second seat in Strasbourg every month at enormous cost to the taxpayer (not to mention the environment).

393 signatures were needed for the declaration to become official EP policy.

Earlier this week we wrote to MEPs urging them to sign the declaration and help put an end to this scandalous waste of time and money. But clearly their hearts are just not in it.

We've heard some MEPs argue that their objection to the declaration was that it would scrap the Strasbourg seat, instead of the Brussels one. This is a poor reason for failing to give support in principle to ending the circus.

Nevertheless, it should in theory at least mean that they would support a new declaration which does not specify either Brussels or Strasbourg, but which simply calls for an end to the circus.

But will anyone draw one up?

Uniting Europe step by step

Random post, but in the middle of our research we've just come across the EU web page that summarises the Treaties.

It's called "Uniting Europe step by step - the Treaties".

Just in case anyone was in any doubt about the main objective of treaty change.

Oops

According to Europolitics, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has let slip to the European Parliament that he thinks the Lisbon Treaty is "worse" than the Nice Treaty.

This is the man, don't forget, who is pushing for ratification of the Treaty, while the Czech President opposes it.

He said:

"Personally, I find that it is a bit worse than the Nice Treaty", but "I negotiated this text on behalf of the Czech Republic, we approved it, I signed it and I will vote for it; however, the fact of telling all member states that they are obliged to ratify a document and that they do not have the right to decide for themselves is quite absurd".

He added: "if a referendum were to take place in the Czech Republic, according to all indications, it would also not pass".

Eurpolitics writes: "Later, having understood that he had gone too far, the EU's president in office explained that he was just kidding at that he just wanted to say that this treaty 'should not be forced upon the Union'."

He said: "There was some very harsh criticism of Václav Klaus, but I am proud of him, he is the icon of the economic transformation of our country. If the EU loses its capacity to hold a civilised political debate, if we no longer have the capacity to freely express our opinions, this will no longer be the Europe that I am fond of".

UK Lib Dem MEP Graham Watson responded saying: "Europeans are your friends, if Václav Klaus compares the EU to the Soviet Union, we should not be concerned by it".

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Labour elects new leader for Europe


Gordon Brown has today welcomed the election of Glenis Willmott MEP as the new leader of the Labour Party in Europe. She will replace Gary Titley at the head of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) now in order to give her time to settle in ahead of the European elections.

It's a mixture of good and bad news.

The good news:

Glenis very publicly supports an end to the 'travelling circus' (which we've been banging on about for the last few days and will continue to do so), and has made some interesting revelations about attempts by the authorities to silence the campaign.

The bad news:

Glenis neglected to reply to Open Europe's Transparency Initiative last year, which aimed to give MEPs the chance to show that they were spending their taxpayer funded expenses fairly and transparently. Over the course of two months, Open Europe repeatedly asked Glenis, along with all the other UK MEPs, to answer six simple and uncontroversial questions about how they spend their staff allowances, and whether they are properly accounted for. She failed to reply, but we do know she employs her husband.

MEPs update

Our sources in Strasbourg confirm that all UKIP MEPs have now signed the European Parliament Declaration calling for an end to the 'travelling circus', after Open Europe applied some pressure yesterday. Bravo.

Will the Conservatives follow suit?

And can Richard Corbett convince his fellow European Socialists to follow him and sign?

At least among the UKIP lot there seems to have been some hesitation as a result of a clause in the Declaration that says Strasbourg would be "compensated" for losing its EP building.

Obviously this is not ideal, but OE's view is that this Declaration is better than nothing in terms of its value as a political lever with which to bash the Council. In any case, we don't see anyone putting forward an alternative statement which doesn't mention compensation.

The ultimate decision of whether or not to scrap the second EP seat lies with the member states. But until those MEPs who are ostensibly against the 'travelling circus' show some will to support what small efforts there are to remove it, then citizens are rightly going to begin wondering what exactly they are there for.

Without 393 signatures, the Declaration lapses tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tick, tick, tick...

MEPs have two days left to show their colours and sign a Written Declaration being circulated, which calls for an end to the ridiculous and expensive practice of moving the Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg every month.

Open Europe has published the latest available list of signatures - which shows us which MEPs have (and have not) signed the petition. It dates from last week, when reports said that only 235 out of 785 MEPs had signed it. 393 signatures are needed to make the Declaration an official EP position.

Those who have signed have a cross next to them. As the list is a few days out of date, it is possible that more people may have signed the petition by now. Let's hope so. We have today written to all those MEPs who are yet to sign, urging them to sign up before the Thursday deadline.

After all, while the ultimate decision about whether or not to scrap the second seat must be taken by the member states, if the EP itself took a position in favour then this would send a strong signal to the public that this pointless waste of time and money cannot be allowed to continue.

Fingers' crossed that the petition attracts enough signatures. Watch this space for some naming and shaming when we get hold of the final version towards the end of the week.

How to fill the blank?

The Czech Presidency has unveiled a sculpture it commissioned to stand outside the Council building in Brussels. The installation piece is designed to represent cliches and stereotypes of member states in a welcome attempt to subvert the usual attempts at political correctness. Eg France is shown as the national map with the word "strike" draped over it, while Italy is shown by its football team. There is a blank space reserved for the UK, to represent its 'absence' from all things EU.

Others are more controversial, with Bulgaria represented by a large toilet, and Poland shown by priests raising in the rainbow flag in the same image of American soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima in WWII.

EU officials have been complaining that the piece have "does not seem to have been properly discussed in the appropriate forum." Tough luck - the Czechs are in charge now for six months. It hasn't been funded by taxpayers, so what's the problem?

Perhaps it's the fact that the installation dares to draw on national stereotypes, rather than a European theme.

After all, the Commission saw nothing wrong at all with its (taxpayer-funded) promotional film, posted on EU tube, called "Let's come together", which featured people having sex for three minutes. In fact, the EU Commissioner for Communication, Margot Wallstrom was very dismissive of complaints that it had caused offence. (For details of this and other EU communications projects click here to read Open Europe's report on EU propaganda.)

Controversy, it seems, is fine, as long as it is strictly EU-themed - not to mention carefully controlled.

In the spirit of the piece, we would like to invite suggestions for what Britain might have been represented with, should the blank space have been replaced? A gang of rowdy bingedrinkers, perhaps ??

Other suggestions encouraged...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Labour MP says Irish are "extremely arrogant"

The lines are slowly being drawn in Ireland over the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. A new poll (of only 500 people) shows that 55 percent will vote 'yes' next time around.

This should be a stark warning to the 'no' campaign over there that this is not going to be an easy battle - there is no room for complacency when we're talking about a Treaty that EU leaders and the Irish Government are hell-bent on seeing passed.

Especially when we're dealing with people who simply refuse to accept any kind of criticism of the EU whatsoever and who want to oversimplify the debate to childish levels.

Pat Cox, a former President of the European Parliament, has today thrown his glove in and vowed "not to give an inch" to 'Eurosceptics' in the debate. Speaking at a European Movement event and referring to Declan Ganley's ambitions of fielding candidates in each member state in the EP elections, he said: “We cannot concede an inch to the nationalists and euro-sceptics who will try to surf on the financial and economic tsunami.” He said the financial meltdown will be a “perfect opportunity for nationalists and Eurosceptics.”

In an attempt to paint EU critics such as Ganley as 'anti-European', he said the upcoming elections would be a “real pan-European referendum in favour or against the EU”.

Meanwhile, one of our own British Labour MPs has told a French journalist that:

"The Irish had become extremely arrogant, believing they owed their success only to themselves and not to Europe. The crisis has reminded them to what extent they were dependent and that could work in favour of Lisbon."

We wonder who that might have been?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Big EU brother

The Government has announced that from 15 March, the UK's internet service providers (ISPs) will have to start collecting and storing details of all their customers' email and other electronic communication for a year.

Not only that but the Government may end up paying the ISPs up to £75m to ensure the law is obeyed. The data will be accessible to more than 600 public bodies, such as the police and councils, if they make a valid request.

It's scary stuff.

The BBC has some strong reactions from the likes of Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who said: "The thing we have to worry about is what happens next because the government is already mooting plans not just to leave this stuff with the providers but to create a central government database where they hold all the information."

The Earl of Northesk, a Conservative peer on the House of Lords science and technology committee, said it meant anyone's movements could be traced 24 hours a day. "This degree of storage is equivalent to having access to every second, every minute, every hour of your life," he said. "People have to worry about the scale, the virtuality of your life being exposed to about 500 public authorities."

And what's at the root of all this? The EU's Data Retention Directive - otherwise known as Directive 2006/24/EC

It looks like the Government has already postponed it for as long as possible, but now has to enforce it. According to Article 15:

"Until 15 March 2009, each Member State may postpone application of this Directive to the retention of communications data relating to Internet Access, Internet telephony and Internet e-mail. Any Member State that intends to make use of this paragraph shall, upon adoption of this Directive, notify the Council and the Commission to that effect by way of a declaration. The declaration shall be published in the Official Journal of the European Union."

What's a bit surprising, is that this particular initiative was thought by many to have been shelved, when the Data Communications Bill, partly designed to enact the Directive, was axed from the Queen's Speech in November. It's currently only a 'Draft Bill', and is not scheduled. Maybe they have squeezed this bit into another piece of legislation, such as the Policing and Crime Bill, while no-one was looking...

Can anyone tell us more?

Call yourself a reformist MEP? Then get your finger out

We've managed to get hold of a list of numbers of MEPs from each country and each political group which shows us how many have not yet signed the declaration calling for an end to the wasteful two-seat European Parliament. No names yet, but we'll be sure to post these once we have them. MEPs have until 15 January to sign up.

Numbers that HAVE signed:

By Group

ALDE: 58 out of 100
EPP-ED: 66 out of 288 (shockingly poor - remember, this is where the British Conservatives currently sit)
Greens-EFA: 21 out of 43
GUE-NGL: 7 out of 41
Ind/Dem: 4 out of 22
Non-attached: 7 out of 31
Socialists: 57 out of 217
UEN: 13 out of 43

So less than 23% of EPP-ED members have signed, and only 18% of (UKIP's) Ind/Dem group have. Overall, it's less than 30% of all MEPs, and with only 5 days left to go. This in spite of the fact that more than 1.2 million citizens have signed an online petition calling for the European Parliament to have one seat only.

By Country:

Austria: 3 out of 18
Belgium: 10 out of 24
Bulgaria: 4 out of 18
Cyprus: 1 out of 6
Czech Rep: 6 out of 24
Denmark: 11 out of 14
Estonia: 2 out of 6
Finland: 7 out of 14
France: 0 out of 78 (!!!)
Germany: 15 out of 99
Greece: 4 out of 24
Hungary: 6 out of 24
Ireland: 7 out of 13
Latvia: 4 out of 9
Lithuania: 6 out of 13
Luxembourg: 0 out of 6
Malta: 1 out of 5
Netherlands: 21 out of 27
Poland: 13 out of 54
Portugal: 7 out of 24
Romania: 8 out of 33
Slovakia: 0 out of 14
Slovenia: 4 out of 7
Spain: 6 out of 54
Sweden: 15 out of 19
UK: 51 out of 78

No surprises that the French are the least likely to want to scrap the two-seat Parliament. But it does seem amazing that not even one wants reform.

The Swedes and the Danes meanwhile are topping the table with an excellent sign-up rate so far of nearly 80%. The Brits, on the other hand are languishing behind with only 65% of MEPs bothering to try and stop this farce of moving between Brussels and Strasbourg for a week every month.

Which ones haven't bothered to sign, we wonder? Watch this space - we'll do our best to name and shame.


Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why is Britain Eurosceptic?

Charles Grant makes a rather old-fashioned and out of date argument in his latest CER essay: "Why is Britain Eurosceptic?" In some ways it sums up what is wrong with the debate about the EU. Hence this long and rambling blog post. Bear with us.

His argument is framed around the old 'Europe, yes or no' question, instead of the far more relevant question today of 'What kind of Europe do we want?' His argument is all about being 'pro' or 'anti' EU; about "Britain on its own", or going along with everything the EU does without criticism. He even goes into the old debate about whether British people have more in common with Americans or Europeans.

The notion of 'euroscepticism' is becoming more and more shaded all the time. It is no longer the case that those who reject further European integration are 'anti'-European or even anti-EU. As the EU gathers more and more capacity to act in more and more areas of our lives, it inevitably starts to pick up more and more critics. People are critical of the EU for all sorts of different and valid reasons.

Indeed critics of the EU these days come in many different shapes and sizes, and until the EU and its strongest supporters such as the CER start to acknowledge that, then the whole idea of the EU will move further and further away from the people until there is no way back.

The British people may well be the most 'eurosceptic' people in the EU (with some very close competition from the Austrians, Latvians and others), but that does not mean they reject the EU outright. The polls show that given a choice, the majority of British people want to remain in the EU, but are sceptical about the agenda for further integration and ever closer union. That is a healthy and legitimate position and should not be dismissed.

Grant argues that British euroscepticism is down to five things: history, geography, the economy, the social and cultural environment, and above all, it seems, the "eurosceptic" British media. He says: "the steady drip, drip, of anti-EU propaganda over many years, having permeated deep into Britain’s political culture, has made a major contribution to the shift in British public opinion since the late 1980s: the country has become more eurosceptic."

In this sense the paper reads very much like the note leaked by the European Commission recently to the Irish press, which complained that the 'Eurosceptic' British media was behind the Irish no vote.

There is no doubt that all these things are part of the picture about why the EU is increasingly unpopular in the UK. But, just like the Commission's own communication strategy documents (as we've explored elsewhere) it totally ignores the possibility that, shock horror, people might have valid objections to the EU's policies, its method of decision-making, its approach. Maybe, just maybe, people are genuinely concerned about what is going wrong - on everything from trade to foreign policy to overregulation and poor accountability and transparency.

It is a very patronising argument.

It's patting heads and saying, "it's ok, you're only criticial of the EU because of your country's political and economic standing, its history and geography, and the lies peddled to you by the papers you read." It completely fails to take seriously the growing discontent with the EU, and it also gives the impression that criticism of the EU is unacceptable and intolerable, rather than a very healthy part of democracy.

Out of 6,000 words about why people are turning away from the EU, 480 in the CER paper discuss the failure of the EU to sign off its accounts for 14 years in a row, and the failing Common Agricultural Policy. Even this is qualified with: "The inability of the EU institutions to explain simply and clearly why they do what they do, and how EU policies and programmes help ordinary citizens, is legendary."

Only in passing, does it mention that many small businesses are 'eurosceptic' because they see the EU as a source of red tape, implying by the tone that this is an unjustified misperception. It's hard to think of a more valid reason why a business would be critical of an organisation it felt was costing it more to run.

Grant laments the fact that 'even' the "Pro-European" newspapers "still print much that criticises the EU". What good would the free press be if it didn't criticise government?

He complains that "The British media – and not just the tabloids, but also the BBC – like to portray Brussels as a story about epic battles, victories and defeats." But isn't this the way to get people to actually engage with the EU - which the Commission always says it wants to? As LSE Professor Simon Hix writes in his book 'What's wrong with the European Union and how to fix it', "until there is genuine political drama and intrigue in Brussels, TV and newspaper editors will have no incentive to cover EU politics".

At least the British media covers the issue of the EU to some degree. As a journalist from one of the main quality German papers recently reminded us, during the debate on the EU Constitution, several papers in the UK published summaries of the Constitution, something which would never happen in Germany, for instance. This, he said, shows that the media in the UK at least tries to shoulder its responsibility to inform the public. In contrast, coverage of EU affairs in European newspapers is paltry for the most part.

Yes, sometimes the papers do get it wrong. But it's not just the tabloids, as Grant claims. For example, several continue to constantly claim that the Lisbon Treaty would significantly increase the powers of national parliaments, even though this has been shown to be false by the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee, among others.

It's interesting that Grant has a go at "bold, striking and often inaccurate front pages" in the British press. Presumably he isn't referring to the "Pro-European" Independent, whose last bold and striking front page on the subject claimed that '50 reasons to love the EU' included "Europe has revolutionised British attitudes to food and cooking", "Britons now feel a lot less insular", "British restaurants now much more cosmopolitan" and, to finish: "Lists like this drive the Eurosceptics mad".

Yes, very accurate and professional journalism from the 'pro' EU media there.

Grant also claims that "the most eurosceptic newspapers – the ones which claim that Brussels bureaucrats exercise increasing power over Britain – do not bother to have full-time correspondents in Brussels". Again, presumably he isn't talking about the Independent, which also doesn't bother to send a correspondent, but which regularly writes favourably about the EU.

At the end of the essay, Grant admits that "even if the British people tend to be the most
eurosceptical, as the Eurobarometer surveys show, their views on the EU are less divergent from the rest of Europe than they used to be."

Surely this means the time is now riper than ever to have a more serious debate about the future of the EU and Britain's relationship with it? To stop dismissing people's concerns about the EU as simply the result of their entrenched historical, geographical, economic and social DNA and start to have a real debate about what kind of EU we want?

The paper boldly says: "The British are the last people in Europe to understand how the EU is changing." Maybe that is because they never get asked what they think. Research shows that referendums held on EU issues in countries like Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland makes them far more likely to answer questions about the EU correctly. If we want people to understand the EU, then it's time we had a proper debate.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

House of European Propaganda

Just come across this very good piece by the Telegraph's Bruno Waterfield missed while we were away for the Christmas break.

He writes that MEPs have given the green light to a multi-million pound state-of-the-art "House of European History" to be opened in Brussels by 2014, with an aim to "promote an awareness of European identity."

In keeping with the dozens of examples uncovered in our own recent publication on the EU's efforts to promote EU integration, according to an internal document "a supranational and civil union" for Europe should be among "the key messages conveyed by the House of European History".

"The exhibitions should make it clear that, in a world of progress, a united Europe can live together in peace and liberty on the basis of common values," said the document.

It really is amazing how candid the EU institutions are about using educational initiatives to promote a united Europe. It could be that they genuinely cannot see that these activities are wholly unjustifiable as a use for public funds, or maybe they think nobody is ever going to read the small print found in the very telling internal documents. Or maybe it's a bit of both.

Will MEPs vote to keep the circus travelling?

The Parliament reports that only 235 MEPs have signed a written declaration calling for an end to the so-called “travelling circus” between Brussels and Strasbourg, which costs EU taxpayers €203m per year.

That is well short of the 393 MEPs, or more than half of the assembly’s deputies, needed for it to have a chance of becoming formal EU policy.

Slow-moving MEPs have until 15 January to sign it, so next week’s plenary in Strasbourg will be crucial.

One MEP, German ALDE member Alexander Alvaro, accused those colleagues who privately endorse the one-seat campaign but have yet to sign the declaration, of “hypocrisy”. He said, “They should stand up and be counted."

Hear hear.

Monday, January 05, 2009

On neutrality

An article in the Irish Times over Christmas has reminded us of a series of interesting pieces that appeared in the paper in November from Dr Karen Devine, postdoctoral research fellow at Dublin City University.

The articles explore in detail the meaning, history and future of concepts of neutrality, and the implications of the Lisbon Treaty for Irish neutrality - concluding that:

Common defence can be interpreted as the EU term for collective defence. A neutral state cannot legally or politically sign up to this Article 28A(2) in the Lisbon Treaty because it confirms a definite, rather than a possible, intention to create a common/collective defence that involves going beyond military alliance commitments.

All four articles are worth a read (here, here, here), but the specific explanation of Lisbon's impact is as follows:

While the Government claimed military neutrality was not affected because of the clause in the Constitution prohibiting membership of a future EU military alliance, it is worth noting that academic analysts of the treaty, and the European Civil Society groups, concluded that the treaty's ESDP provisions would put an end to states' neutrality.

[...]

The primary "non-involvement in [other countries'] wars" element is compromised under article 28B, which places no limits on EU military missions. The concept of using force only in cases of self-defence is eliminated, as article 28B provides a capacity for pre-emptive action (as envisaged in the European Security Strategy).

Ireland may be associated with "high intensity" EU operations even if the state is not a participant.

"Non-aggression" and "peace promotion" values appear to be under threat, given that the neutrals' clauses proposed at the convention to limit the scope of EU military action and repudiate war were rejected.

The primacy of the UN and its peacekeeping is eliminated under article 28A(1), as EU missions do not require a UN mandate. The neutrals' proposals for EU missions to require a UN mandate were rejected.

The inter-related neutrality characteristics of "impartiality", "anti-big-power politics" and independent decision-making amid big-power pressure are compromised under articles 10 and 280E(2) that lift the ban on enhanced co-operation in the field of European Security and Defence Policy.

Article 28A(6) provides for permanent, structured co-operation in defence matters, and designates larger states to execute the "most demanding" military acts. Neutral state representatives argued that large state missions going ahead in the name of the EU in the face of objections from smaller states will have little credibility, as they would clearly show that there is no genuine common foreign policy.

These provisions, combined with article 15B/201a on Constructive Abstention, make unanimity as a decision-making rule a non sequitur, while articles 280B, 11(2-3) and 16b, also objected to by neutral states' representatives, eliminate abstaining states' independence in action.

The "anti-militarism" value is affected by article 28A(3) which commits member states to increased military spending and a common arms policy within the article 28D-supported European Defence Agency.

Finally, the military neutrality concept of non-membership of a military alliance is eliminated under the article 49c(7) mutual defence clause that effectively constitutes a new EU military alliance, and the article 188R solidarity clause.

Neutral states' representatives tried at first to eliminate these alliances, and thereafter, to make these clauses non-binding, but ultimately failed in both endeavours. The clause stating that the mutual defence guarantee will "not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States" is so vague as to be devoid of any legal effect; opt-out protocols are the only way to avoid these obligations.

The conditions under which Ireland would join the EC common defence, as laid out by politicians in Dáil Éireann over the years - ie once the EC had evolved into "a genuine federation or confederation, with a common foreign policy" (Garret FitzGerald, May 11th, 1982), or once there was "co-decision of the European Parliament with the Council" to exercise adequate democratic controls over ESDP (Proinsias De Rossa, November 29th, 1991) - have not been met.

While ESDP structures and capabilities are sketched in the Lisbon Treaty, the circumstances under which they will be used and against whom would be decided in the future by the European Council; in the absence of any democratic controls, ESDP is a leap too far into the unknown for many voters. Compared with the neutral traditions of Ireland, Austria, Sweden and Finland that go back decades or centuries, and are part of people's national identities, ESDP is a very recent policy conceived by a handful of elites in the absence of a European identity that is seen as necessary for its acceptance, legitimacy and success.

Henry Kissinger once observed: "No foreign policy - no matter how ingenious - has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none."
His insight illustrates the problems faced by advocates of the Lisbon Treaty's Common Security and Defence Policy that overrides, rather than accommodates, the foreign policies of neutral states.